PARENTING – Doctor’s Corner, December 2015

Allen Weissby Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR
President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System

So much has been written about being a good parent. We are all products of parents or have had children, so the topic remains important and always current— particularly as 25 percent of families are led by single parents in America. That’s a much higher percentage than other developed nations.

A family member recently shared an article with the rest of our family. Its title was, Science Says Parents of Successful Kids Have These Nine Things in Common. Good parents want what is best for their children be it happiness, good health, a productive life, doing well at play, school or work, and many other positive attributes.

parentingBeing a successful parent comes down to sharing and inculcating these common elements.

#1. Parents who teach kids social skills from birth to kindergarten develop children who are better prepared, socially and emotionally, for a healthy future. Socially competent children who cooperate with their peers without prompting, are helpful to others, understand their own and other’s feelings, and resolve problems on their own are far more likely to earn a college degree and have a full-time job by age 25 than those without these skills. That’s according to a study of 700 children over 25 years led by Pennsylvania State and Duke universities.

Children with limited social skills had just the opposite experience with a higher chance of being arrested, troubled by binge drinking, and/or living in public housing while receiving welfare. “From an early age, these skills can determine whether a child goes to college or prison, and whether they end up employed or addicted,” according to this study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

#2. Parents who have high expectations for their offspring likewise have successful kids. “What you think will happen does,”is an expression my parents imprinted on my two brothers and me. More formally this concept is known as the Pygmalion effect:“What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self fulfilling prophecy.”

During the post World War II years, generations of Americans moved to the suburbs with the aspiration that the next generationwould have a better life and more opportunity than the former generation.  Thus a college education was an assumption foreveryone. Consequently, in many upwardly mobile suburban communities, more than 90 percent of high school graduates wenton to higher education. A more recent study by the University of California evaluated findings from standardized tests for 6,600 children. It showed that 57 percent of the kids who did the worst were not expected to attend college by their parents, while 96 percent of the kids who did the best were expected to go to college.

#3. When a mom is working, that is a big predictor of success as well as getting beyond gender inequality. No one is more efficient than a working mom. Noted Harvard Business School professor and author Kathleen McGinn, “There are very few things that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother.” Daughters of working mothers are more likely to be in a supervisory role and have 23 percent higher earnings. Sons of working mothers also contribute by pitching in on household chores and becoming more independent and responsible.

#4. One characteristic not easy to change is poverty. Sadly, a fifth of American children grow up in poverty. The gap between high and low-income families is roughly 30 percent to 40 percent larger today than 25 years ago. In general the higher the income of the parents, the higher the SAT scores of the children. Having books in a home, and having the ability and time to use the public library are also characteristics of higher socioeconomic homes. Socioeconomic status drives much of educational achievement.

#5. Having parents with higher educational levels tends to “rub off ” on the offspring. University of Michigan psychologist Sandra Tang found mothers who finished high school or college were more likely to raise kids that did the same. Teenage moms who didn’t finish high school have children who are more likely not to finish high school. This is a multi generational problem. Parents’ educational level when their child was eight years old significantly predicted educational and occupational success for the child 40 years later.

#6. A very interesting fact is that learning math skills early on was a huge advantage—not only for the math itself but also future reading achievement. The paramount importance of early math skills (knowledge of numbers, number order, and other rudimentary concepts) is the key, according to Northwestern University researcher Greg Duncan. The three “R”s—reading, writing and arithmetic—have real impact on scholastic ability, which in turn facilitates success.

#7. Sensitive care giving during the first three years of life is important not only for better academic performance but also for healthier relationships and greater academic achievement in adulthood. Mothers who could recognize the different meanings of their infants’ cries and thus were in tune with feelings were a factor in better long-term outcomes. Responding appropriately and promptly to their child’s signals provides a secure base for children to explore the world.

#8. We know that spending time during the first three years of life pays big dividends later on. Conversely, spending too much time with “intensive mothering” (aka “helicopter parenting”) can have a negative effect. Stress in mothers can be contagious. “Emotional contagion” is a real psychological phenomenon. If you hang with optimists, your personality brightens. The reverse is also true.

#9. How children (and adults too) perceive the source of their success contributes to achievement. A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static “givens” which we cannot change in any meaningful way. In this situation, success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard.

Striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of un-intelligence but as a springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. These two alternatives are articulated by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck.

Those are the nine characteristics which surely make a difference for the next generation. Getting kids off to a good start is among the best achievements for society. It helps everyone lead a longer, happier, and healthier life.

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